Discrimination by Association: Know Your Rights

Employees may not be discriminated against because of their relationship with someone in a protected class.

By , J.D.

Federal and state laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees and applicants on the basis of protected characteristics, such as race, gender, national origin, disability, and age.

These same laws also prohibit association discrimination: treating an employee or applicant differently because of that person's relationship with someone in a protected class.

Employment Discrimination: What Is Prohibited?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the primary federal antidiscrimination law, prohibits employers from making job decisions based on race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion.

Other federal laws also protect employees and applicant from discrimination based on disability, HIV or AIDS status, age (over 40), and genetic information.

You can find out more about these federal laws, including which employers must comply, what they prohibit, and how they are enforced, in our article on Federal Antidiscrimination Laws.

Nearly every state also has its own laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. Some of these laws parallel federal protections; others apply to smaller employers or protect additional characteristics, such as marital status or unemployed status.

Laws prohibiting job discrimination protect employees and applicants at every stage of the employment process, from job interviews and hiring to benefits, promotions, wages, and firing.

If federal or state law has protected a certain characteristic, employers may not make job decisions based on that characteristic.

Employers also may not adopt seemingly neutral policies or practices that disproportionately screen out members of a protected class (called a "disparate impact"). For example, a policy of refusing to hire anyone with an arrest record might have a disparate impact on African-American applicants.

What Is Discrimination By Association?

Antidiscrimination laws also prohibit association discrimination. Association discrimination occurs when an employer makes a job decision based on a protected characteristic of someone with whom the employee or applicant spends time (or has some other relationship with).

Although association discrimination is often based on the protected characteristic of an employee's spouse or other family member, it does not have to be. For example, an employer that decides not to hire an applicant because of her volunteer work with HIV positive homeless people would be engaging in association discrimination.

Examples of Discrimination By Association

Here are some other examples of association discrimination:

  • A company decides not to promote an employee because her husband is an evangelical minister. The company's president is an outspoken atheist, and the company's executives don't want the employee's husband to discuss religion at retreats and similar work functions, which high-ranking company employees attend with their spouses.
  • An employer doesn't hire a woman whose son is autistic, based on the assumption that she will miss work in order to take care of him.
  • A manager who harbors racist beliefs fires a white employee because he marries an African-American woman.
  • An interviewer declines to consider an applicant who is helping care for her father, who has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The interviewer believes the woman will take time off to care for her father and that she could be genetically predisposed to the same illness.

As you can see, discrimination by association is sometimes just bias, once removed. For example, a manager who is prejudiced against Latinos might refuse to hire any Latinos or refuse to hire anyone married to a Latino. In other cases, discrimination by association takes place because of stereotypes and assumptions.

Parents and spouses of people with disabilities may, for example, be assumed to miss more work or to be preoccupied with their family obligations. No matter the reason, employers that commit this type of discrimination violate the law.

What to Do If You're Facing Association Discrimination

If you believe you have been denied a job, fired, or missed out on some job benefit because of your association with someone in a protected class, you should talk to an employment lawyer right away.

A lawyer can review the facts of your situation and help you figure out the best way to proceed. If you want to take legal action against your employer, you must take certain steps relatively quickly – such as making an internal complaint within your company or filing a discrimination charge with an administrative agency – in order to preserve your right to file a lawsuit.

For tips on selecting a lawyer, see Hiring a Lawyer for an Employment Issue.

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